Finance won’t find real gender diversity while toxic cultures still exist

gender diversity finance

Over the last year, 58% of UK financial services board appointments were female, ahead of the Europe-wide average of 50%. The gender diversity data, published by EY, is encouraging for the finance world. Seeing figures of female parity – and even majority – is rare. 

But there’s a danger to the data here, too. It’s tempting to look at figures like these and assume finance is finally getting a handle on its gender problem. The reality is starkly different. EY’s report shows that men still hold the board majority at UK financial services firms, with 57% of board members being male and 43% female.

Then there’s the gender pay chasm. Reuters research, published last year, found an average mean gender pay gap of 32.1% among 21 UK major financial institutions, over double the 14.9% average in 2020 for all UK employers, with one institution registering a gap of 51.3%. Yes, there was some narrowing from the previous year – at a little more than 1%. 

Then there’s the seniority element. In any effort to achieve equality, it’s crucial to improve representation in decision-making roles. It’s through improving the balance of power within positions of power that long-term progress is made.

And then we come to the culture. Finance has been built for men, and too often – and for too long – there’s been no effort to change this.

I worked in investment banking for three years, where I was one of less than a handful of female equity researchers. Team nights out involved strip clubs, downing pints and being mocked for going home to see your kids or partner. If I said I had terrible period pain I was looked at with shock and embarrassment. I was once asked why I chose to be an equity researcher “because it doesn’t tend to suit women’s skillsets”.

I’m not alone in my experiences. Ask any woman who’s worked in finance and she’ll have her own stories to tell. Let’s not forget that in November it was revealed that Goldman Sachs paid over $12m to a former female partner to settle claims over a toxic environment for women.

‘Wolf of Wall Street shouldn’t be an instruction manual’

Diversity stats are shocking for the tech world, too. But real gender diversity and equality in finance won’t be achieved as long as toxic cultures exist. Diversity must be accompanied by genuine inclusion if it’s to stick – new hires and appointments mean nothing if women are simply pushed out or pushed down through sexist attitudes and structures.

It’s no surprise that the only two people who were let go in my team, during my time in investment banking, were myself (a woman with an autoimmune disease, which meant I needed to work from home once a week) and a woman about to go on maternity leave.

The change needed is seismic. But the solutions can be simple. For instance, don’t assume that there are “male” and “female” traits that mean a role is suited to one gender over another. 

Teams should always be encouraged to socialise. It’s a core part of workplace culture. But firms should make activities inclusive and enjoyable for those of all genders and backgrounds. The Wolf of Wall Street shouldn’t be an instruction manual.

Giving employees greater work flexibility, such as flexible hours or more work-from-home options, is also crucial. This is critical in helping support female employees, who disproportionately take on caregiving responsibilities (another gender battleground) or have fertility issues to navigate, such as menopause. But it also gives everyone the opportunity to enjoy a greater work-life balance.

Employees should be actively encouraged to have lives outside of work, not celebrate sleeping under desks and laughing about not seeing family for days on end. This tone is set by management and they should lead by example.

More female board members is good. But if finance’s culture doesn’t shift, these changes will be superficial, and won’t impact gender equality across the whole firm. Luckily, there are easy moves every firm can make to start transforming their culture and creating an environment where women can also thrive. Let’s see who takes them.

Molly Johnson-Jones is the CEO and co-founder of Flexa.